It seems to me, as I write this during the pandemic of 2020, that we’re standing in a time and place of unparalleled instability.
All of the “sure things” I previously took for granted are changing into something else or just disappearing altogether. My personality, my Ego, my being-in-the-world, is constantly trying to readjust, to find some stable ground.
Until this year began, I felt that while everything was always changing to some degree, I was able to take for granted the adjustments that were necessary to keep my balance. In my daily life, all the tasks on my to-do list, involving interactions with other people and with institutions, were pretty straightforward. A trip to the grocery store involved navigating with my shopping cart through narrow aisles and around other people and their carts, perhaps figuring out what to substitute for items that were not available, and waiting more-or-less politely and patiently for my turn to check out during busy times.
Now, of course, out there in the world, things are more complicated. There’s making sure I have a face mask to go with my shopping bags. There’s the six-foot distancing rule between other shoppers and myself. And then there’s some level of wiping things down when I return home that would never have entered my mind before this year.
From time to time I feel some annoyance at having to do these new things. I also sometimes feel annoyed at those who, for example, choose to disregard the new rules by refusing to wear a face mask and by congregating in tight groups. And yet, these new conditions may very likely may become some kind of new normal, and the annoyance will subside to its usual low or even nonexistent level. I like to call these things “first-world problems.”
An illustrative image that comes to mind here is getting on and off a moving sidewalk at the airport. It was a bit tricky the first couple of times I tried that, but pretty soon my body was able to anticipate the changes in speed that were required to avoid staggering around. The moving sidewalk seems an apt metaphor for my daily life. The disruptions I experience are mild, and they are such that I don’t experience fear or anger or any other negative emotions that upset my equilibrium to any significant degree. A trip to the store will be more like the moving sidewalk for me than, say, trying to stand up on a surfboard or keep my balance in a strong earthquake. So far so good.
But now, there’s the experience of turning on the nightly news and seeing how difficult this period of time is for so many people around the globe.
A couple of minutes of that viewing and I become quite clear that for many, many people, the metaphorical moving sidewalk has turned into an earthquake of sufficient magnitude to cause large numbers of people to fall over and perhaps be injured or even die. The pandemic has caused enormous suffering in many areas of life, including loss of life, health, and livelihood.
I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and examine what the pandemic is and how it causes so much suffering. But first, let’s be clear: the illness and death of a loved one is not something any of us should take lightly. I have experienced the loss of loved ones several times, and while the grief process is a natural one, we surely miss the ones who no longer accompany us on our physical journey. Symptoms of illness are unpleasant at best. And the measures taken to prevent or slow the spread of the virus have produced enormous disruptions in economic activity. They’ve resulted in huge unemployment numbers and a cascade of effects involving, to paraphrase, not getting the money from Peter necessary to pay Paul.
Ok. “Take a step back…” How can we do that? How can we find a perspective on the current situation that will allow us to find and keep our balance? Let’s have a look…
The story we tell about the Coronavirus is that we are facing an unseen enemy that’s extremely dangerous.
To protect ourselves from the danger, we are being forced to alter our behavior in such a way as to sacrifice ways of being that we hold dear, such as congregating, embracing, and generally behaving as if all is well. Furthermore, in the face of this danger, we are represented by leaders and institutions that seem to one degree or another insufficient to the task of keeping us safe.
Ok. What is a pandemic anyway? “Pandemic” has its origins in an attempt to make sense of the observation that an unusual number of clusters of people are getting sick and dying. Scientists, whether professional or amateur, do this all the time. We create a story, a description, around observations, and then we see if that description holds up in view of ensuing additional observations. So, the story goes, people have been attacked or infected by some thing, that thing is able to jump from one person to another by physical contact or proximity, and the thing is capable of producing symptoms in its victims that are very uncomfortable and sometimes life-threatening.
So “pandemic” represents a story, a way to make sense of what appears to be going on, and the details of the story are scary.
And that provokes people into behavior designed to protect themselves and their loved ones. And because people are provoked, their fear response takes over, and some of the behaviors they choose are ineffective, ill-advised, and even dangerous. In this light, you could even argue that the story we call “pandemic” is potentially worse than the thing we’re worried about.
The real problem is, this story, this description of what’s going on, leaves us relatively powerless. It leaves us on shifting ground, in which every day brings with it some new aspect of that threat. We hear about some new disease process in children. We’re given statistics about unemployment that are even more alarming than the previous ones. Or we hear of even more egregious statements and attitudes on the part of some of our leaders. That story leaves us no place to take a real stand, because everything is constantly changing in unexpected ways. And besides, it puts the blame for our collective experience “out there” somewhere, out of our control.
However, I believe that there is a place to stand that is stable and unshakable.
To find that place, however, requires a rather giant step back, away from the daily din of bad news and the attitudes of all those mostly well-meaning people who often can’t wait to share their political and moral perspectives with us. To seek such a place to stand is not an indicator of not caring, or of moral laxity, or callous disregard. In my experience, it requires, instead, the utmost effort and commitment to be authentic in our love and caring for one another.
So, my friends, this is my stand. I might call it a “meta-story,” a story in which all of our personal stories, including your story, take place. This meta-story is one in which there is purpose and intention behind all of the changes that are taking place right now. Let’s see if we can get a feel for such a larger story. And please remember, it’s just a story.
In this meta-story, the physical world is not the be-all and end-all of human existence. The physical universe is not what it seems to be. We can instead think of the world as a body of Self-expression, a blank canvas on which each of us paints a multi-sensory portrait… of ourselves. Whatever beliefs, ideas, and understandings each of us have is projected outward onto this blank canvas. This projection has a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is to see what our beliefs, ideas, and understandings are, so that we may change them if we so desire. And the second purpose of this projection is the simple joy of doing it.
Let’s try the following exercise. Imagine putting yourself in your bed and preparing to dream. Imagine that you have discovered within yourself the capacity to consciously choose the idea you want to explore in your dream state. The advantage of doing this in your dream, as opposed to trying to do it while you’re awake, is probably obvious: you will have total freedom to make up this dream world as you go along, unencumbered by the intentions or beliefs of others.
So, you choose an idea to explore in your dream, you fall asleep, and you find yourself in a world of your own creation, encountering situations and other people consistent with the idea you chose. Some of the ideas you might have chosen lead to pleasant experiences, but some of them put you in predicaments you must extricate yourself from, or perhaps just struggle through.
You can think of this dreaming exercise as kind of like improv. In improv at your local playhouse or on TV, actors are given a premise but no script, and they agree to work out the action and the dialog as they go along.
Now, shift your perspective on all this. Turn the idea on its head. Allow yourself to imagine that someone else, a deliberate dreamer, is dreaming you. Pretend, if you will, that this you, which you point to with the word “I”, is a character dreamed up by that someone else. That someone started with an idea, a premise, dreamed up a situation that expressed that idea, and allowed the dialog and the action to follow naturally.
Even though the deliberate dreamer who is dreaming you is adept at choosing an idea to explore while dreaming, they enter fully into the dream and lose their awareness that they’re asleep and just dreaming. Essentially, in their dream state, they forget they were asleep and dreaming.
Now, imagine that you yourself are that deliberate dreamer. You took on a premise of your own choosing, and you lost yourself in the role of a person you invented “on the fly,” so to speak. And that act of forgetting who you really are, that voluntary amnesia, allows you to fully engage your creativity and immerse yourself in the role of you, completely.
Where does that leave us?
I believe it leaves us with a place to stand, a place with firm footing while we observe all the chaos that’s going on around us. It leaves us standing in a place where we can experience real empathy for those who live in difficult or impossible circumstances.
We can stand there, knowing that it’s very much like watching a drama. It’s like watching a drama about the challenges and difficulties of living, watching the expressions and body language of impeccable actors on stage as they express these difficulties and their agonies, and then seeing their smiling faces when they take their curtain calls. Imagine those actors who awaken from immersion in their roles, in their characters, to soak in the appreciation of the audience and the satisfaction of an acting job well done. And, of course, imagine one of them as… you!
I hope this meta-story works for you, that it allows you to feel better about what’s going on. If you believe that the physical world is the be-all and end-all, that there is nothing beyond what we see and hear and so on, it may be hard to swallow. But for all of you who sense that there’s more to the story, that we don’t end when our bodies give out, it may provide some stability in the face of all the changes are taking place on the planet. My guess is, there are more instabilities, more life changes, to come. I hope each of you will find some solid ground on which to stand.
It sure feels better than living in fear of whatever might be coming around the corner.